Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires Review – A Kingdom in Disarray
Dynasty Warriors 9 EmpiresFebruary 15th, 2022
Koei Tecmo's Dynasty Warriors series is one of the most polarizing gaming series still running today. Some love the power fantasy it lets players live, while others cannot stand the simplicity of the combat system and how iterative the entire franchise is.
Dynasty Warriors 9, in many ways, is possibly even more polarizing than previous entries. The changes made to the combat system haven't been universally well-received, and the open-world setting wasn't used to its full potential. This could have been easily rectified in Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires, the now obligatory updated version of the main entry in the series featuring strategy elements, but sadly, developer Omega Force played it extremely safe, something that only exacerbated the problems of the main game, resulting in an underwhelming package that only hardcore fans of the series and specifically the ninth main entry will appreciate.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is built upon the Dynasty Warriors 9 experience, adding some strategy elements to its predecessor's hack and slash formula. As such, players will still be able to experience the story of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, starting from the Yellow Turban Rebellion and ending with the 228 AD's Northern Campaign, or to the Fall of Shu for owners of the Deluxe Edition, but they will have more agency on how the story develops, which kingdom unifies China and how this is accomplished. Instead of following predetermined characters, players can play as whoever they want among the over 90 characters included in the game, even as a fully customizable character created via the game's Edit Mode. The most enticing feature of the Empires experience is that players are not forced to recreate the actual historical events that took place from 184 AD to 263 AD, as they can make any officer join any faction and thus create their own version of history. It is possible to play as pretty much anything, ranging from an unaffiliated officer than jumps from one faction to another, as an evil general, or even as the ruler of a faction, dictating the political objectives that will unify China under one banner.
On paper, the premise of Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is fascinating and filled with countless possibilities, but the execution results in a very underwhelming experience. For starters, the game does not feature any new cutscene, as those available are lifted straight from Dynasty Warriors 9, which is not particularly surprising for an Empires release. At the same time, the few real-time ones are reused for each of the available campaigns, stripping them of any uniqueness they may have had. Those with little to no interest in Romance of the Three Kingdoms can pick any campaign and feel no difference outside of the ruler they will help unify China. Making matters worse is the horrible quality of both pre-rendered and real-time cutscenes. The first run at extremely low resolution, while the second feature an assortment of stiff character animations, generic location design, and some very low-resolution textures. Again, this isn't particularly surprising, but one might have expected a little more effort to at least make these repeated story cutscenes a little more pleasing to the eye.
As one really shouldn't play an Empires game for the story, the mediocre plot of Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires and its presentation shouldn't be surprising. Unfortunately, even the gameplay doesn't do much to keep players engaged due to the combination of a variety of issues.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires' main play mode is Conquest Mode, where players get to pick between different campaigns focused on different kingdoms. This mode is split into two distinct gameplay instances: the strategy and the hack and slash segments. In the first, players will be able to contribute to the prosperity of the kingdom they serve by helping fulfill specific objectives every six months, such as increasing rations to certain amounts, recruiting a certain number of new officers, and so on, while in the second, they will take an active part in Invasion and Defensive battles.
The strategy segment is quite deep, allowing players to make various decisions that influence the state of the kingdom, the available resources, and the power of its armies. To be honest, these matter very little at the start of a campaign, but at least they get progressively more important as the empire expands. It becomes more critical to have enough resources to protect territories, expand the army, and launch invasions against more powerful kingdoms. The Objective mechanics, which feature a series of requirements to fulfill each semester, are a good addition to guide players in their conquest of China. Still, they do not matter much in the grand scheme of things, as failing to meet them only results in missed Merit Points used for leveling up, which can be obtained in a few others ways. This is pretty much the issue of most mechanics found in the strategic component of the experience, such as titles unlocked by behaving in a certain way, rising through the ranks to become Grand General and thus being able to further influence how the kingdom is ruled and so on: they are there, they do sound great on paper, they work, but one can ignore most of them and still emerge victorious from most battles.
Things do get more interesting by playing as the ruler of a kingdom. In this case, managing resources and engaging in the strategy elements is way more important, as making a wrong decision and invading a much stronger kingdom will result in a sound defeat. Playing as a free officer, on the other hand, isn't particularly exciting, as an offer to join one of the factions is often presented soon after starting the campaign, and the only other option is to start building a kingdom, which doesn't hold much difference from a regular campaign.
Matters are made even worse by Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires' implementation of the open-world mechanics seen in the original game. Accessible via the Stroll option while in the strategic segment, the open-world mechanics allow players to explore a vast map to interact directly with characters, recruit them to your cause, ask fellow officers to accompany you, and so on. Unfortunately, this is everything you can do in the open world, as exciting things to do are pretty much non-existent: you can kill bandits or hunt animals, that is all. Omega Force was definitely aware of how barren their open-world is since it is possible to interact with officers straight from the menu, making the traversal of the map a complete waste of time. It is a massive shame, as the open-world setting would have done wonders in an Empires experience, but the developer chose not to do much in this regard, and the whole experience does suffer from this.
What the developer changed in Dynasty Warriors 9, and thus in Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires, is the combat system, and the changes are not, in my opinion, all for the best. Doing away with the system seen in older games, which allowed players to perform combos with different combinations of light and charge attacks, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires features a new Flow attack system where the performed combo changes depending on the state the enemy is in. The state is changed by the Trigger Attacks, which launch enemies in the air, stun them, and knock them down. The charge attack has been changed into a Reactive Attack, which is also used to trigger counterattacks and finishing attacks. As such, using Trigger Attacks effectively is extremely important to unleash the combo you may need at a particular moment.
While the new combat system is a little deeper than the old one, it doesn't work all that well, and I felt I was button-mashing even more than in other Musou games. The main issue lies in the enemies, who just stand there waiting to be destroyed by whichever attack I wanted to unleash. Named characters occasionally react, but they are not much better, as the Trigger Attacks (except for the Special attack) do not have any cooldown timer. Hence, it's possible to juggle them to death by alternating the Launch and Stun attacks, for example. Things improve slightly at higher difficulty settings, but not by much. The game does feature tons of different weapons with different movesets, so combat variety is there. However, it doesn't really matter which weapon you use since enemies just take whatever is coming their way. This also renders other mechanics almost pointless, like the ability to equip artifacts and gems that add elemental properties to attacks and improve stats.
The enemies' passive behavior in combat makes all Invasion and Defensive battles a joke and renders additional mechanics (like the Secret Plans, special battle maneuvers activated by fulfilling certain conditions in battle, the ability to give direct orders to officers before the battle begins, and the rock-paper-scissor system that determines how effective a troop type is against another) almost pointless as long as the armies are evenly matched.
This happens very often as long as you make the right decisions during the strategy phase. During battles, conquering territories to unleash siege weapons and unlock the Grappling Hook is incredibly easy, and so is conquering castles, as it is possible to shoot straight to the opposing side's enemy leader and defeat them to win. Defense battles work in pretty much the same way, despite the reversed roles, and the mediocre map design results in players soon going into the motions, with the only fun deriving from playing the power fantasy that has always been the basis of the Dynasty Warriors experience.
While it could be argued that these issues are present in previous entries in the series, they feel much worse in Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires, also due to how limited Edit Mode feels compared to the past. While the character creator has been improved with features seen in the Nioh 2's creator, the options feel extremely limited, especially when it comes to costumes, which I am pretty sure will be expanded down the line with countless pieces of paid DLC. Making matters worse is the complete inability to edit movesets, which results in created characters sharing movesets with other set characters. This is highly disappointing, as it fails to provide many reasons to create a character from scratch.
As if all these issues weren't enough to make Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires an underwhelming experience, the game comes with a lot of technical issues on PC. The port is barebones, featuring minimal graphics settings, no key icons for mouse and keyboard controls, and somewhat unstable performance. The system used for the test, powered by an i7-10700 CPU, RTX 3070 GPU, and 16 GB RAM, kept a framerate close to 60 FPS (higher framerates are not supported) at 4K resolution with a combination of medium and high settings. Even if performance was 100% spot on, the game still would have had something left to be desired, as it features many visual glitches like pop-in, flickering shadows, models clipping, and more. Even without these issues, visuals would have been very mediocre due to textures being very low quality and the generic location design. Characters are mostly fine, at least.
However, even with all these issues, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires still has some appeal. The power fantasy it lets players experience can still be fun, so it isn't a complete disaster. Considering the game is being sold at full price, and the little it adds not only to the Dynasty Warriors 9 experience but to the Empires sub-series, however, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is a game that can only be recommended to die-hard fans of the series that liked the combat changes introduced in the main game and are willing to look past quite a few gameplay and technical issues.
PC version tested (review code provided by the publisher).
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Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires attempts to mix features introduced in Dynasty Warriors 9 with strategy elements but fails to do so due to a variety of issues, such as the low difficulty level, limited character creation options, and a generally unpolished experience. A better implementation of open-world mechanics would have done wonders to update the Empires' experience, but Omega Force decided to play it extremely safe, resulting in a game that only die-hard fans of the series will enjoy.
- Huge amount of playable characters and weapon types with different movesets
- Multiple campaigns centered around different factions
- Well-crafted, but not particularly consequential, strategy mechanics
- Pointless implementation of the Dynasty Warriors 9 open-world mechanics
- Limited Edit Mode, with no ability to customize movesets
- Bad enemy AI and low difficulty
- Performance and technical issues
- Barebones PC port